Round-Britain cruise, July 2009:
There are two ways to book a holiday at sea… easy but expensive or tricky but cheaper…
We saw the whole thing. The tiny pilot launch racing to catch our giant cruise liner. The crashing waves as it drew alongside. The rope ladder thrown from a hatch and caught by a crewman.
Leaning over the balcony of our cabin, we watched a middle-aged couple nervously inch their way across the little boat’s open deck and clamber up the ladder as the sea raged all around. They had missed the boat when it left the Channel port of Le Havre 20 minutes earlier and, incredibly, the French pilot ferried them out. The 965ft-long, 93,000-ton Norwegian Jade was half a mile out of the harbour when they caught up.
We never did find out why the couple were so late, but when the drama was over wife Sue and I sat back sipping tea on our balcony, and chorused in unison: “That could have been us!”
Why? Because just an hour earlier we’d been utterly lost in the vast docklands of Le Havre – and ended up tailing a Frenchwoman who agreed to help us find our way. After taking back the hire vehicle – a nine-seater minibus because they had run out of cars – we joined a queue of stragglers scrambling on board 10 minutes late. Phew!
Moral of the story? If you want to save money on a cruise, make sure you’re better organised than us! Our hire-car adventure was prompted by the high cost of official cruise excursions. Instead of coughing up pounds 240 for a coach trip to Monet’s garden at Giverny plus a meal for two, we paid less than half that and drove there ourselves. And it was a great day out… until we got lost.
If you’re thinking of a cruise (and there are some choice bargains this year) there are two ways to handle it – easy but expensive, or tricky but cheap.
The easy way involves signing up for the official excursions and letting the cruise line do the work. The cheaper way is to plan your own outings at each port of call. It takes a bit of planning and it helps to know your way around the internet, but you can save a fortune.
There’s an easy way and a cheap way in the ship’s restaurants too. Most of your food on a cruise ship is already paid for, but if you like a bottle of wine with your meal, the price comes as a nasty shock.
The cheapest bottles start at around £20 and you’ll pay pounds £30-£40 for the quality of wine that costs pounds £7 on the High Street.
However, there’s a simple alternative. Buy a bottle while you’re ashore and most cruise lines let you bring it on board in return for a “corkage” fee of around £10 a bottle. No cruise line actively encourages this do-it-yourself strategy (they all want as much of your money as possible, thank you) but it seemed to chime nicely with the informal style on the Norwegian Jade.
It’s the same on all NCL (Norwegian Cruise Line) ships. They call it Freestyle Cruising and it means you can eat wherever and whenever you want. And if you can’t resist that old cruise tradition of non-stop eating, one restaurant and one buffet are open round the clock. You can even get table service at 4am.
For us, seven days wasn’t enough to visit all 12 of the ship’s restaurants but we did try eight, including the French haute cuisine at Le Bistro and the Chinese/Asian medley menu at the Jasmine Garden. Luckily, there are lots of things to do apart from eat, and some of the more energetic sports and activities will help you work off those puddings. The hardest work I did all week was after dinner in the ship’s nightclub when I was persuaded to try linedancing for the first time. After what seemed like 30 minutes of Cotton-Eye Joe and a high-speed routine where every woman got to whack every man on the bum, I barely had the energy to stagger back to a table and lift a glass of beer.
Maybe it’s better to sit back and watch professional entertainers. The musicals were fabulous, with live singing and dancing so tuneful, precise and energetic it made the whole audience beam with delight. Britney and Madonna wouldn’t make it past the first auditions here.
If you still need more to do, NCL try to cater for everyone with their activities and events. There are bridge clubs, quiz nights, dancing classes, game shows, social meetings for gay people and clubs for children and teenagers.
Finally, if gambling floats your boat, all the NCL ships have big casinos offering roulette, blackjack, poker games and rank upon rank of flashing slot machines.
So once you’ve saved hundreds of pounds by fixing up your own excursions and drinking your own wine… you can go ahead and blow the lot!
WHAT’S THE DEAL?
NCL prices start at £369 (cruise only) or £649 (fly-cruise) for their seven-night western Mediterranean cruises on the Norwegian Jade in 2010, featuring the new ports of call Palma and Monte Carlo. For more details visit www.ncl.co.uk or call 0845 201 8900.
This article was originally published in the Sunday Mirror on July 26, 2009. There are no details about the cruise itinerary and other ports of call because that route was withdrawn by the company before publication.